Vagabond (Reviews)

VAGABOND by Kate Ayers
Wed 05 Feb 2003

Last year, Bernard Cornwell introduced Thomas of Hookton, a young English archer. He filled the pages with great adventure, gory battle scenes, distressed damsels, armored knights, wayward bishops and beleaguered castles. Now, Thomas returns to England after a victory in the famed battle at Crecy, France. He bears a letter from the bishop and King Edward III that is meant to gain him an audience with an old priest who, it’s been rumored, has knowledge of the Holy Grail — the object of Thomas’s quest. Of course, he must fight his way there. After the surprising outcome of the battle at Durham, Thomas forms an odd alliance with Scotsman Robbie Douglas. The two set out on their crusade, a crusade of revenge for several recent deaths, coupled with the hunt for the holy treasure. Their journey takes them back to Hookton first, where Thomas recovers a book written by Father Ralph, his father, who was killed by cousin Guy Vexille (in the opening of THE ARCHER’S TALE). The tome, an apparent clue in the puzzle of the Grail’s whereabouts, baffles Thomas — and later, others — with its cryptic passages. With book in hand, he and Robbie make the perilous crossing to France over stormy seas, dodging pirates and French war ships, forced into the fray upon landing. They hook up with some of Thomas’s old friends and fight some new battles. The quest continues — and probably will again in Cornwell’s third installment in the Grail Series, which is sure to be as eagerly awaited once readers have feasted on VAGABOND.

Cornwell recreates, with brutal realism, the battles stretching across 1346 and 1347. He vividly imagines the gruesome skirmishes, flaying his readers open with horrific details. The most feared battlefield weapon, the longbow, comes into bright focus through Cornwell’s words. I gained a new respect for archers. While I am no fan of war stories (due mostly to a squeamish temperament), the tale of young Thomas is utterly captivating. Despite the repugnance of the cruelest scenes, I reminded myself that the violence and savagery are an integral part of the story. In truth, it would be hard to call it a war if there was no pain, carnage or death.

Before the fighting, the men are whipped into a frenzy with exhortations of “Kill them! Kill them all! The lord will reward you for every Englishman (or Scotsman, or Frenchman) slaughtered!” The hatred is fierce and very personal. Without knowing the enemy’s face, swordsmen slash with heated vehemence at their opposition, butchering men and animals, all in the name of righteousness. It struck me as a medieval jihad and hammered home the point that man has been fighting holy wars for centuries. Despite the ugliness of the subject, VAGABOND reads fast and leaves one immensely satisfied with the story.

It is indeed a pleasure learning to love history through Bernard Cornwell’s work. He takes an otherwise dry subject (to me, at least), works his storytelling magic and turns it into high entertainment. I greedily look forward to being among his audience when he releases the next in the series.